While a $5 camera app is hardly the largest expense to many photographers, the most recent generation of phones has made it clear that it’s wasted money.
Camera apps have been around since the earliest days of the App Store. Remember the orange tinge that permeated every shot uploaded during the start of Instagram? Over the last couple of years, a number of “pro” apps have launched, including Halide, Moment, and Obscura. They promised to give you the tools to create better images, with an emphasis not on filters, but on things like manual controls and raw capture.
After shooting extensively with the latest versions of some of these apps, including an in-depth comparison against the stock camera app, I don’t believe there’s much value in keeping them installed. Put simply, the phone manufacturers have added enough “secret sauce” to their imaging pipeline that an app just won’t create a better quality image, in most cases.
I’ve covered the implications of computational imagery as it relates to the iPhone and features like the Pixel’s Night Sight in previous articles, and I’ve been impressed by what a difference these processing steps make. Apple has clearly put a ton of work into squeezing every drop of performance out of their cameras, with Deep Fusion being a prominent example.
Deep Fusion combines 9 images, shot before, during, and after the click, to reduce noise and enhance detail. Importantly, this processing is totally opaque to the user, requiring no input. With Night Mode, Apple gives users some control, including adjusting duration across a few second range, it’s essentially an on or off switch for long exposure. Beyond these steps, Apple has put more effort in behind the scenes on things like lens corrections (see the ultra-wide camera) and image processing that leverages the comparatively immense processing power of the phone’s processor.
All these processing steps mean that to shoot raw, the headline feature for many camera apps, you’re looking at a lot of work to get anywhere close to what you get from the stock camera app. For some of these processing steps, like night mode, it isn’t really even possible to duplicate it, as you can’t truly capture the same raw data available to the app.
When it comes to interchangeable lens cameras, raw is a clear benefit over JPEG. In phones, however, the files have little additional latitude when saved as a raw file. Sure, you have less discretion over HDR and white balance by sticking with the default camera app, but are you really micromanaging those settings when shooting with a phone?
Furthermore, since I’ve been using the default camera app, the only image quality issues that came up were from shooting beyond the performance envelope of the phone itself — something no app would make up for. As an example, subject motion in low light just won’t work — not with Night mode, or by cranking the exposure on a raw from Halide. In fact, the blur reduction on Night mode might actually give it an edge.
Home Team Advantage
This one is more specific to Apple, where the stock camera app is a first class citizen. What I mean by that is you can’t put Halide on the lock screen or in the control center. It’s such a little thing, but just being able to jump immediately into the camera is so conducive to the type of photos I find myself taking with a phone.
This extends to how files are handled, too. Granted, HEIC can be annoying to deal with if all your devices aren’t fully updated, but iOS’s raw handling is even worse. Apps will often error on the side of caution, saving a JPEG alongside their raw file, making for a cluttered mess of files when you actually bring them over to your computer.
Lastly, developers have had to make compromises when it comes to file types, since Apple doesn’t support every file type in every camera mode. With Halide, for instance, you can end up with a .DNG raw file, a HEIC or JPEG file, and a .TIFF file, all in the space of a few photos! So much for the simpler photography experience promised by a cellphone camera...
Solving a Nonexistent Problem
A number of pro camera app’s features are solutions in search of a problem. As an example, the iPhone’s 4.2mm focal length translates into a hyper focal distance of about 6 feet, meaning everything from about 3 feet to infinity is in focus. Got something closer than that? Tap to focus has worked just fine, in my experience. Also, since it’s a phone, you probably aren’t focus stacking, dealing with an adapted lens, or shooting in low light beyond the AF capability of the camera. As a result, camera apps with a manual focus mode just aren’t useful.
Those points also apply to focus peaking. It is a cool looking feature, but it isn’t going to impact how you shoot, owing to the deep DoF and large screen you’re composing on. The same goes for highlight clipping in stills - when your exposure control is effectively just an ISO and shutter speed slider, you don’t need that fine grained degree of control.
Depth sensing has been the latest push from camera apps and may represent the only real value add from one of these apps. I don’t shoot any depth enabled photos, so I can’t personally speak to the significance, but this may be the last bastion of these apps.
Writing stable code is hard, I can appreciate that. What I don’t appreciate is having an app repeatedly crash, potentially costing me the shot. It’s not just me running into these issues, as a quick check of the major app’s reviews reveal a common theme of crashes.
This problem is further compounded by the misaligned incentives of app development. The one time purchase paradigm that many of these apps operate around incentivize developers to sell, but not not to maintain. As a result, even prominent apps can see months go by between updates, all while issues pile up.
At least on iOS, the camera is a major focus of development, and clearly receives a huge share of the development team’s resources. This results in major feature updates with each new iOS version, with long periods of stability in between. I’ve not had the native camera app crash, or ever generate an issue with file outputs.
Dawn of a New Age?
Don’t throw out your App Store gift cards just yet. While pro camera apps have stagnated, there are a few bright spots still left. Apple hasn’t put the same effort into video as they have photos, leaving the door open for pro video apps.
Apps like Filmic Pro offer a wide variety of tools that aren’t matched in the stock camera app. Log video is more significant than raw photos, while frame rate controls and resolution support makes it easier to integrate video into your existing workflow (unlike the camera app’s messy file situation). Higher quality encoding also produces cleaner files, something which isn’t fully supported natively.
Lastly, some apps are innovating. Computational photography for pseudo-long exposure effects are an interesting feature, while the previously mentioned depth sensing features can also be of value.
To conclude, it’s a combination of the inherent feature growth and first-class treatment of the stock camera app that has eroded the bedrock of pro camera apps. They still exist, I still have some installed, but for the last few trips, I’ve not opened them. Do you still find yourself using a camera app outside of the stock one?